The Only People
All the world is divided into Only People and Grays, Marshas and plain Janes. How the one profits from the other forms the basis of this story by Judith Higgins, a native of New Jersey, a graduate of Pembroke, and a resident of New York City.
MOMMY, made me answer the ad for a medical typist. I wanted to stay home and watch I Love Lucy and The Edge of Night. I was tired of jobhunting, and I thought my leg needed a rest.
I had polio when I was a child, and I wear a brace on my right leg. It is attached to my black oxford and runs up to my knee, where it ends in a padded circle of steel. The leg seems boneless, and its pinkish-purple hue shows through my nylon. In fact, it looks like a rag doll’s leg.
I know other people would hate to have such a leg, and looking at it they thank God it is I who have it and not they. But what they don’t know is that I don’t always detest my leg. I’ve had to favor this rag leg for eighteen years, so I’m quite
attached to it. At night when I take off the brace
and sit in my bath or when I first get between the sheets of my bed, I think of my leg rather tenderly. It seems so vulnerable, how could I wish it further harm? I rub it gently with my hands or my good foot. I hop from tub to bed, holding it carefully in the air.
But I sympathize fully with others’ disgust and wish to spare them the sight of such a leg. That was another reason for my wanting to stay at home. Let Boston employers have a day off from the sight of me. But Mommy would not listen to my reasons. “You’ve had a hard time, but so have I! You’re twenty-seven. Get a job — and keep it for once!”
“No one wants me—” I said. But she was already pushing me out the door.
My mother and I live in the South End. My father left us when I was three, when I had two nice normal legs and no limp. I wonder what he would think if he saw what happened to me. Mother says he would probably take one look and leave on the next train. He never could, she says, stand any kind of responsibility or trouble. Mother and I both work, or I do most of the time, and on weekends we go to the laundromat and wash outhair and cook pot roast, and on Sundays we go to High Mass and watch Ed Sullivan, Looking at TV is what I always put down under “hobbies” on the job applications — and I list my programs.
The trip to Downtown Hospital was very hot, and I got lost once on the MTA. I wanted to turn back, but I was afraid Mommy would pull out the plug of the TV. She had done that twice before.
“Eighty words a minute. That’s very impressive,” said the personnel manager at the hospital. “And you’ve used a Dictaphone?”
“Well, we certainly need somebody. We were without a chief pathologist for four months when our former one retired, and there’s a backlog of autopsies to be typed up. Would you be interested?”
“Oh, yes.” I hate talking to people. I mean, where are you supposed to look — in their eyes the whole time? I think that annoys them, and I know I ought to look away every few seconds. But my eyes stick.
“You’d be working in the pathology lab, near the operating room. How would you feel about that?”
“It wouldn’t upset you?”
“Good. I’ll take you up to Surgery to meet Doctor Wiles. He’s our new pathologist.”
G. Wilbur Wiles, in his forties I guessed, had red hair, a crew cut, and a starched white coat. He was much better looking than anyone on General Hospital or Doctor Kildare. His secretary stood beside his desk.
“This is Miss Murphy,” said the personnel man. “She’s come to help us out on the autopsies. Types eighty words a minute.”
“It’s true,” I said, then blushed. I felt like a racehorse that had suddenly spoken.
“Great!” exclaimed Doctor Wiles. He jumped up and shook my hand. “What’s your first name? I hate this formal business.”
I looked around for the personnel man, but he had gone. “Jane,” I said.
“Well, Jane, this is Marsha Polanski, my secretary.”
“Hi, Jane!” She came forward and shook my hand, just as heartily as Doctor Wiles had. “We’re glad to have you aboard.” Then she returned to her place beside Doctor Wiles’s desk. She was younger than I was, blond and pretty. Her eyes took in my brace in the most discreet way, and then she never looked down again.
“Well, little one,” said Doctor Wiles, “let’s get Miz Jane started. Eighty words a minute — gee whiskers, are we lucky!”
They looked at each other and smiled. Marsha said, “Yes. She’s made our day.”
Facing me, they seemed to present a united front, so at ease. I knew then that they were Only People. Only People are handsome, successful, relaxed, and above all they are paid attention to and taken seriously. In fact, Only People are the only people. The rest of the population are either Grays or Janes. Grays are harmless but not very interesting. I suppose Mommy is a Gray; I know she is not an Only Person or she would not be living in two rooms in the South End with me. Janes are the creeps of the universe. They have everything possible the matter with them, and no one would dream of taking them seriously. Naturally, Only People don’t like to have to look at Janes, but sometimes they tolerate the Janes when they prove themselves good workers. I pride myself on being a good worker and therefore possibly useful to Only People. That is my one hope, because everyone stays the way he is. Grays stay gray, and Only People reign forever. It took me a long time to make myself understand that I would always be a Jane. I had to put a sign on the wall of my room: Live Without Hope.
Marsha led me down the hall to the office where I would be typing. People stared at me as I passed, but I kept my eyes on Marsha’s strapped high heels. That’s one more thing I hate about starting a new job —the spurt of curiosity I stir up.
My gray steel desk touched another: from behind it a heavy older woman looked up, rather startled. She pulled the Dictaphone apparatus from her ears and tried to smile at me.
“Miss Lupowitz,” said Marsha, “this is Jane Murphy. She’ll be typing the autopsies. Miss Lupowitz enters the specimens in the surgical book and types our gross surgical descriptions. A gross is the pathologist’s rough description of the tissue removed during an operation — its measurements, appearance, how it feels to the touch. I type the microscopic description of the same tissue — how it looks on a slide — and the diagnoses. The surgical report on a patient consists of gross, then micro, then diagnosis. And of course I am Doctor Wiles’s secretary.”
“How do you do?” said Miss Lupowitz to me.
Marsha addressed me, smiling. “Sit down, sit down.” She pulled out my typewriter for me (a manual one), got out paper, and inserted a belt into my Dictaphone. No one except Mommy had ever waited on me like this.
“Everything all right now?”
“Oh, yes, fine. Thank you.”
“If you have any questions, just ask me. Or ask Miss Lupowitz. She’s been here twenty years.”
“Oh, thank you, I will.”
Miss Lupowitz spoke up. She had an accent of some sort. “Miss Polanski, here is a belt of micros. Doctor Hendrix handed them to me a little while ago.”
“Oh. Well, what about it?”
“Well, don’t you want to take it?” The tape fluttered in her outstretched hand. Marsha did not take it.
“You start them, Miss Lupowitz. I’d like the surgical reports to go out today.”
“Of course. If I would have known that you wanted me to do the micros, I would have started them already. But yesterday you said that you —”
“Do the best you can, Miss Lupowitz.” With a smile at me, she was gone through the swinging door that led from this office into the lab.
Miss Lupowitz was staring at me with wide eyes. Her cheeks had turned red. “She’s twenty years old,” she said to me. I didn’t know what she wanted, but I couldn’t take time out to ponder it.
I had my work laid out before me.
I am proud of one thing, and that is my typing. If your legs don’t work, I guess you have to concentrate on the hands. And that’s what I have done.
I knit and I sketch a little and I type. When all is going well, words go in my ears and come out my fingertips without any mental interference in between. The thing that has to be right is the atmosphere. I have to have peace. Then I get into a kind of dream, and the words from the Dictaphone flow through me like blood. All the noises and voices around me disappear. My eyes stare only at the letters falling onto the paper, line after line, as steadily as rain.
The body is that of an emaciated white female, weighing an estimated 98 pounds and measuring 5 feet 5 inches in length. The body is opened in the usual T-shaped ventral incision. . . .
When the door of our office was open, you could see the patients being rolled by from the operating room to the recovery room. In their little plastic caps and with the I.V. bottles dripping into their arms, they never spoke. The only noises were the grinding wheels on the beds and the orderlies saying, “Watch it, watch it.” All day there was a sound like trains going by our door.
The left lung is surgically absent. The right lung weighs 550 grams. Its pleura is opaque gray and diffusely thickened.
I could scarcely wait to tell Mommy what a good job I had found and with what nice people. I knew she had not believed that I would ever get it.
WHEN I took in some mail to him the next morning. Doctor Wiles made me sit down and have coffee with him. I watched while he measured coffee into two cups and poured water from an electric pot. A doctor in a white coat was making me coffee I could scarcely believe it. “How many sugars?” he asked.
“Oh, that’s all right.”
He laughed. “Miss Murphy, you’re a very agreeable young lady. I’ll assume you take two lumps.” He handed me my cup and sat down at his desk. He smiled. “Isn’t this heat brutal?”
“Yes, it certainly is.”
“I’m from Little Rock, but this has me beat.” He touched his white coat (I realized I had been staring at it), and said, “These damn things don’t help either, but a doctor doesn’t look like a doctor unless he has one on. I envy this little fella his outfit.” And pulling out his wallet, he showed me a snapshot of a smiling baby in a diaper.
“Ah,” I said.
“He’s my new son. Daddys aren’t supposed to praise their offspring, I know, but I think this guy’s pretty great.”
“Oh, he is. He’s beautiful.” But not a tenth as good-looking as you, I thought. Oh, Mommy, if you could see me now —
I had to make myself concentrate on what he was saying. He was explaining that he was in charge not only of the pathology lab, where they examined tissue, but of the chemistry lab, where they examined blood and urine, and the blood bank as well. He wanted no splits between the three departments or any of the people in them. “I hate pigeonholes, job roles,” he said. “At the risk of sounding like a country bumpkin, Miz Jane, when my Boy Scout troop back in Arkansas went on a camping trip, we all pitched in. Nobody said, ‘I get to do that because I’m older than you or smarter than you or because my Dad’s richer than yours.’ And we all cooperated with the leader. Here people have gotten solidified into categories, everybody pulling in his own direction. It’s not their fault they’re lazy. Nobody has ever supervised them properly before. We can double our output here, and if we double our output, we double our business. It’s as simple as that.”
We finished our coffee. “Those letters you’ve got, are they for me, Ma’am?”
“Yes.” I laid them on his desk.
“Thank you kindly, Ma’am.” And he smiled at me again.
I went away realizing that this was the best job I had ever had.
There were three doctors besides Doctor Wiles who worked in the pathology laboratory, and often they came out to our office to use their new Dictaphones or to receive specimens wrapped in green surgical cloth.
One nurse was very loud and would always call out the organ. “Stomach! Sign, please.” And Miss Lupowitz would get up, enter the information in the surgical book, and then bring the organ into the lab for the doctors to dissect. For her recording she used a bail-point pen called a NO`BLOT Thinrite #2435. I would have liked one, but she had the only one.
She also had the IBM typewriter. I had to go very carefully on my manual, because the k and y stuck each time. There were also the accents to contend with. Doctor Duval and Doctor Chang both had accents: “The you-nayree bla-dr ees deestanded and cohn-tens a-boon-dant torr-beed youreen.”
MARSHA came in, put her hand on my shoulder, and said to Miss Lupowitz: “Are you finished with the grosses yet, Miss Lupowitz?”
“No. I am going as fast as I can, Miss Polanski. You used to want them by twelve o’clock. Now it is only ten o’clock, and already you are asking for them.”
Her cheeks had turned red again. I felt so comfortable with Marsha’s hand on my shoulder. How wonderful that she would want to touch me. It made me want to laugh at Miss Lupowitz.
It was Marsha who laughed. “Ruth doesn’t like Dictaphones,” she said to me. “She’s used to taking down the doctors’ reports in longhand.”
“No, no, that’s not the point. I could get used to it if it would work right. I don’t ask that you should get a new machine for me, but could you call the repairman? Please. This has been broken already one week.”
Marsha pushed a stray blond hair behind one ear. Yesterday she had worn her hair down, and today she wore it up in a bun and had horn-rimmed spectacles on. It almost seemed that she could be two different people. “I’ll try to call him again, Miss Lupowitz. That’s not the only thing I have to do.”
A doctor walked in just then carrying a raincoat and a briefcase. Marsha brightened. In fact, she shone. She pulled her hand from my shoulder and thrust it at him. “Doctor Norton, hul-lo! It’s delightful to see you again. Doctor Wiles will be delighted also, I am sure. Won’t you follow me to his office? Here, let me carry your coat.”
“No, no, that’s all right, honey.”
“Doctor Norton, I insist. You’ve come so far for us. You must tell us, did you have a good flight?”
And away he went, following that little heartshaped behind. I was sure that men must find her very attractive. I’m not much to look at from the back because I’m not symmetrical; on the right side, where I had polio, my buttock is much smaller; because of this I never wear tight skirts.
“Stroggling along with these broken machines — it’s terrible,” Miss Lupowitz muttered. “And then the deadlines. I never know when they want something.”
I did not answer her.
“Hi, ladies.” Doctor Wiles stood in the doorway, his hands on the frame. “’Lo,” I mumbled, smiling, and Miss Lupowitz twisted her face into a smile.
I was sure he had heard her; it served her right if she got into trouble, for being such a poor sport. “Good morning, sir,” she said, and put the Dictaphone apparatus back into her ears.
Later on, when he came back into the room — and this is the truth — he put his arm around my shoulders. First Marsha’s hand and now Doctor Wiles’s arm — this was really my day.
After what seemed five minutes (and I was afraid my shoulders were sweating), he said: “Miss Murphy?”
“Could you type this address on a label, please Ma’am?”
“Oh, yes, Doctor Wiles, I’ll do it right away.” I took the slip of paper from him, and my hand was shaking. It was, I thought, just like a scene from The Nurses, everyone working together, the sultry midday city beyond the window looking like a paper set.
He straightened and withdrew his arm, and said, “Thank you, Ma’am,” and winked at me.
Oh, God, God, God, I thought, isn’t he wonderful. I was too happy to be jealous when he said, “Miss Lupowitz?”
She removed her earphones. “Yes, sir?”
“I’m hungry, and I’m going to lunch. Ich wolle haben Mittagessen. Ich habe ein grossen Hunger!”
He smiled and waited until she gave a small chuckle (adding that she did not know much German), and then he departed, his white coat swirling.
THE cafeteria for the lab help, clerical help, and laundry staff is located in the sub-basement,” Marsha explained, as Willie the Negro operator rode us down.
“Oh, I see,” I said, trying to concentrate. I was so happy — she had made Miss Lupowitz wait her turn and had asked me to lunch with her!
“Let’s sit by ourselves,” she said, laughing and tickling me in the ribs. “I want to talk to you!”
She signed for both our meals and brought them to the table. “Now, if you will spread these things out while I get our milk and coffee.” Mommy had not been this nice to me since I was sick.
“Doctor Wiles likes people to feel they’re working with him, not for him.” As she spoke, her eyes studied my face so eagerly that I felt it would be wrong to look down at my plate. “You just don’t say ‘no’ to a doctor. Doctors arc special people. You have to show them you know they’re the boss. Doctor Wiles gets irritated with people who don’t like him. He gives them every opportunity to show their goodwill, and then if they don’t come across, well. . .”
Her eyes are beautiful, I thought. A pale gray, the color of my steel desk.
“I worked for him a year at Camden Hospital,” she went on, never picking up her fork. “I guess you know, he brought me here with him. At Camden I used to have the grosses on his desk by noon, so that he could come right back from lunch and dictate the micros. Then in the afternoon I’d type those up and knock off four belts of letters.”
She had a piece of bread in her left hand, but had taken only one bite out of it and had not touched the food on her plate. I was terribly hungry, but I felt that it would be wrong to chew while she was talking to me, her face held only a few inches from mine.
“ That’s why I become so irritated when people here don’t meet the deadlines we set up. Miss Lupowitz says this hospital is three times the size of Camden and has three times as many operations per day, but she will grab, I have found, at any excuse for slow production.
“All our jobs depend on one another’s, you see. We’re like a conveyor belt of work. If one person along the way is late, then everybody after him is late, and the doctors don’t get their reports on time. The reports should be mailed out to the surgeons the same day the operation was performed. So far they haven’t been, but I intend to see that they are. Doctor Wiles is counting on it.”
She took a bite of her food, and I took three quick bites of mine.
“The former pathologist was a nice man, but all he was interested in was pathology. He’d come in, give everyone an encouraging word, and then go about his business. He never checked up on people. Doctor Wiles and I have had to do that. And we’ve found, just as you’d expect, that people have been getting away with murder. The girls in hematology and blood bank have been having a ball. They’re never at their desks, which annoys me no end. Betty and Harold in the chemistry lab will get away with as little work as they can. We’re watching them closely.”
She looked at me thoughtfully. “We must think of something else for you to do so that you won’t be typing all day.”
“Answering the telephone?”
“No, I’d better do that. There’s a way of doing it, you see. You have to be very polite with doctors — always refer to them as ‘doctor.’ They’re very sensitive about that. How about making out the lab bills? Perhaps you could do that. I’ve been doing it, but I’m helping Doctor Wiles with research on the book he’s writing—”
“Oh, are you? How exciting!”
“Yes, it is exciting. Interesting. But in any case, it entails visits to the library, so T may give you the lab bills to do — ”
“Oh, I’d love to!”
“Good.” She laughed. “There, I’ve done it again! Talked shop the whole time. But I can’t help it, it’s so interesting.” She stood up, running her fingers up my arm. “Finish that slop, if you want it. I’ll bus our dishes and ring for the elevator.”
I took only one huge bite of rice, so that I could ride back up with her.
One day shortly thereafter, Doctor Wiles introduced a sign-in, sign-out book, which he placed in our office. Marsha explained it to me at lunch. “We’re going to cut down on people slacking off. Mike in chemistry is always making trips to the supply room — he says — but we suspect he’s secretly sunning himself in the solarium. He’s just too tan. And Lilly’s a smart cookie. She comes in at nine thirty. Because she’s been here five years she thinks she can get away with it. But Doctor Wiles will fire everybody here if he has to.”
I choked on my Welsh rarebit.
She laid a hand on my arm. “Not you. We’re very pleased with you so far. Doctor Wiles just wants to be sure that people are putting in their eight hours and that they’re on legitimate errands when they’re away from their desks.” She sighed. “So far, Miss Lupowitz hasn’t signed the book. We’re giving her another day. That woman just won’t cooperate.”
Later that day Doctor Wiles explained the book in a much less alarming way. “This is the sign-out book, Miss Lupowitz.” (Of course, it had been sitting on the corner of her desk all day.) “I’m signing myself out to chemistry and blood bank. See how useful this is, Ma’am? If anyone asks for me, why you just have to look at the book to tell them where I am. Now, doesn’t this make a lot of sense? I know it sure makes sense to me.”
“Yes, sir,” said Miss Lupowitz. Without looking up from my work, I knew that her cheeks would be flaming red.
Yet despite his special pica, an hour later she was still resisting. She lingered in the doorway of our office until I looked up. “I’m just going to the bathroom, Miss Murphy. If he asks.” She laughed. “Just to urinate, so I won’t be long.” She looked as though she were about to cry. I realized that Marsha was right: Miss Lupowitz just could not adjust.
HEY Someone was touching me on the shoulder. “I don’t believe I know your name.”
It was a fat young man in a white lab coat. “Dick Nalbandian . . . Well, you still won’t tell me?”
“Jane Murphy.” My fingers remained arched over the keys; he had interrupted me in the middle of a sentence.
“Gee,” he went on, “I’ve been trying to introduce myself for two days, but you never look up from that machine. I’ll be assisting the doctors now in your lab. Used to be at New Bank Memorial.”
I looked down at the paper in my typewriter; I did not type, but I would not talk to him, either. What if Marsha should come in and find me not working? Besides, I wanted to finish Autopsy 8759 before noon.
“Dick!” called one of the doctors. “Did you get that tray of slides yet?”
“Not yet, Doc. I’m on my way now, Doc. Well,” he said to me, “take it easy. I’ll be seeing you around.”
Good riddance, I thought. But I had thought too soon. At noon he brought his food over to the table where Marsha and I were sitting. What nerve, butting in on our conversation. I hated the way black hairs crawled out over the collar of his lab coat, and I kept my eyes on my tuna casserole.
“So tell me about Doctor Wiles,” he said to Marsha. “No, don’t look at me that way — I’m serious. He’s my new boss, and I don’t wanna do anything to upset the applecart. What’s he like? He must fly off the handle sometime. I’d like to know what sets him off so as I don’t do it.”
“Doctor Wiles is always just as you see him. He doesn’t ‘fly off the handle,’ as you put it.”
“You mean, he’s always that jolly and goodnatured with everybody?”
“Yes. I’ve been asked this question before — what’s the real Doctor Wiles like? But there is no real Doctor Wiles. I mean, what you see on the surface is the real Doctor Wiles. He’s a very unusual man. He likes people, and he wants them to like him as much as he likes them.” She waved her hand. “But I’m not giving out any more information. You’ll find out for yourself. If you do your job well, if you cooperate, you have nothing to worry about.”
He laughed. “Well, thanks.”
On the way up, Marsha confided to me that Dick, who was thirty-seven, was really nothing more than Lilly’s lab maid, and that she and Doctor Wiles were watching his performance closely.
“I knew he was only a Jane!”
“Nothing,” I said, blushing.
The afternoon confirmed my suspicions. Dick was in and out of our office and the lab, spanked on his fat bottom by the swinging door. “I’ll do that right away, Doctor . . . Certainly, Doctor. . . Let me clean that spot out of your jacket, Doctor . . . Can I sweeten your coffee, Doctor?” Oh, he was a Jane all right. I detested him for it.
MARSHA had an IBM Selectric typewriter and the only new Dictaphone. Again this was proof, if I had needed any, of what she was: Only People work with only the best materials. Like Miss Lupowitz, I was having trouble with my Dictaphone, but I didn’t say anything to Marsha. The repairman had not yet come to fix Miss Lupowitz’s, and I could see how her complaints were annoying Marsha.
Typing on a manual typewriter all day tied my shoulders, especially the right one, in knots. In the evenings Mommy had been rubbing them with Ben-Gay. Afterward I would sit with the right one over the back of a chair as I watched TV. I was missing all the good shows now because I had to go to bed by nine o’clock. Otherwise I would not be fresh enough for my work. In addition to five autopsies a day (I used to do two), I was now doing the lab bills, addressing envelopes, typing and filing cards on the day’s operations, and typing over anything that Marsha had made a mistake on and did not feel like redoing. I think Marsha was surprised at how much work I was turning out, although she never said anything.
I did not regret missing Doctor Kildare and Run for Your Life, however. Today Doctor Wiles had put his hand on my shoulder: “Jane, my girl?”
“Can we make this in triplicate?”
Before I had had a chance to reply, Marsha came in and put her hand on Doctor Wiles’s shoulder: “Mrs. Wiles called.” “Thank you, little one,” he said. For a moment we had remained linked together, the three of us, and for that moment I was not Jane but one of the Only People. 1 had never been so happy.
“They are like a couple of Arabs, aren’t they?” Miss Lupowitz had remarked after Marsha and the doctor had gone back to their office. “Always pawing a person.”
I was shocked at her. Then I realized that she was jealous — not only of Marsha (everyone is jealous of Only People) — but of me. Imagine.
The next evening Marsha offered to drive me home.
“Oh, you don’t have to,” I murmured, astonished.
She pulled down the hem of my skirt (I guess my slip was showing). “Don’t be silly. I’d like to.
I have my car with me today.” And she hopped off to tell Doctor Wiles that we were leaving together.
Don t let this go to your head, I kept telling myself as I followed her out to the parking lot, or you’ll be punished. But it was almost impossible to hold down my happiness. How do you like this, leg, I said to it as I pulled it in after me into Marsha’s car, no subway for you tonight.
“Oh, there’s Doctor Wiles!” cried Marsha, and began beeping her horn. Sure enough, I could see his fuzzy-topped head in a little car that nosed us over and passed us. When he was ahead, he winked his left light. She honked three short bursts and flashed her headlights.
“He’s off to suburbia tonight,” she explained to me. “About three nights a week he works late and stays in town. It’s a long drive to Minnisocket” (here she drew in her cheeks and talked very soberly), “but when you bring children into the world, you owe it to them to give them the best possible environment in which to grow up. And after all, the wife and children are the ones who have to be home most of the day. For the man, what goes on at his job is more important than where he puts his family down.”
She went on talking about Doctor Wiles. He had been the youngest ever to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and had had one of the largest scholarships. He used to be a gynecologist and obstetrician. But delivering babies was really the easiest kind of medicine, and much as Doctor Wiles loved dealing with people directly, he was too brilliant to be satisfied staying with the “carriage trade.” And so he had gone into pathology.
There was a lot more that she said, but I was too nervous to concentrate: it had gradually dawned on me — what if she expected to be invited in? If Marsha were to see those two rooms we lived in, I would never get a ride from her again, I was sure of it. And Mommy had gotten so fat. Worse yet, it was very possible that she would fail to see that Marsha was an Only Person and ought to be treated the right way; Grays can be stupid like that.
My worries were suddenly dispelled when, parking in front of the house where we lived, Marsha said, “I won’t come in.”
“Oh,” I said with relief. “I mean—”
“Before you go, there is one thing I want to mention.”
She sighed and traced a circle around the steering wheel with her fingertips. “As you may have guessed, we’re having our problems with Miss Lupowitz. She won’t cooperate. It’s very sad. She can’t learn our ways of doing things, and nothing is ever finished when we ask for it. I’m not saying that I’m any more qualified than she is just because I went to medical secretarial school and she never had the slightest formal training, not the slightest! And yet she can be so sure of herself!”
She lowered her voice. “Anyway, the point is, leaving Miss Lupowitz out of it, we want to be sure you’re on our side. Will you work with us? If we all work together, we can get out of the hole. It will take a lot of time, but we can do it. How about it?”
“Oh. yes,” I said. “Oh, yes. I’ll do anything I can.”
She smiled and patted my thigh. “That’s what I thought you’d say. OK, run in now.”
She revised that when she saw my hand darting from my brace to the door handle and back to my leg again. “Take your time,” she said, stretching. “I’m in no rush tonight.”
FIRST tiling the next morning, I was summoned into Doctor Wiles’s office.
“Thank you for the ride,” I said to Marsha. She smiled and closed the partition between Doctor Wiles’s desk and hers, leaving me alone with him.
“Sit down, Ma’am,” he said. “Miss Murphy, you look apprehensive. Don’t.”
“Don’t look worried.”
I tried not to.
“That’s better.” He lay back in his chair and brushed a hand back over his crew cut. He had on a short-sleeved shirt (his medical coat was hanging on the chair), and I couldn’t help noticing how white the flesh on the underside of his arm was. Shocked at myself, I switched my eyes at once to his face.
“When I came here three months ago,” he said, folding his hands across his stomach, “I found a laboratory that would have been modern about ten years back. The equipment was outdated. People were using methods of doing things that were twice as slow as they need be. Well, by now I think — I think — we may be coming out of the Middle Ages. At least I hope so. Some of the new lab machinery I’ve ordered has already been installed. I’ve gotten the doctors to use Dictaphones, instead of having Miss Lupowitz sit in there like a scribe taking it all down. I’m also waiting on the new multiplex snap-out forms for our surgical reports; they have built-in carbon paper, which will save you gals in the office one heck of a lot of time.”
He leaned on the desk with his elbows. “It’s the human end of things that’s our problem number one. You know, Miz Jane, it’s almost easier to requisition another radiation unit than it is to get people to work with you. I have one person I can count on, and that’s Marsha. She’s been coming in evenings and on weekends while we get organized. I need someone like her.
“But Marsha and I can’t straighten out this place alone. We need the cooperation of everyone here. We can’t have people coming in here and sealing themselves into their own little slots. We’re not a bunch of artists. We have to work as a team. And if I don’t get the cooperation I want, there’s going to be a shake-up here that people won’t forget, and I’m the guy to do it.”
He leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. “I guess you’re aware that we have a problem child in the lab.”
“Miss Lupowitz!” I said promptly.
He smiled. “The kindest interpretation of her behavior is that she is finding it hard to adjust to our ways of doing things. The former pathologist was an awfully nice man who just wanted to be left in peace so he could look through his microscope all day. And he evidently didn’t share my antipathy to rigid ladies who treat men, doctors at that, like foolish little boys. The result was, we had this DP running the administrative end of things when I got here. I have nothing personal against Jews, you understand. They can be fine people. We just ran into the stereotype in Miss Lupowitz.
“She came in here yesterday morning and told me about a mistake I had made — and I sure am glad she caught it, but I didn’t like the way she told me about it. Sort of triumphant. It’s incidents like these that make me suspect she’s not just an old fossil that can’t adjust — I think she really has it in for me.
“Which brings me to why I asked you in here this morning. I don’t want to fire the good lady. She’s been here twenty years, and before we came I’m told that she did get the surgical reports out on time. But starting right now I’d like to bypass this Rumanian lady as much as possible. So Jane, my giri, we’re going to give you the surgical reports to type — Marsha will do the microscopies in the afternoon — and confine Miss Lupowitz to the autopsies. The time element isn’t as important on autopsies. She can fool around with them all day and collect her ninety dollars a week, but she won’t be undermining me. How about it, Miz Jane? Will you work with us?”
“Oh, yes, I will. But —
“What is it?”
“Well, who’s going to tell her? I don’t want to be the one.”
“You won’t have to be. It’ll be my pleasure. She’ll balk at the switch, but I’ll write up a new job description for her. That Old World compulsiveness, you know: they have to see everything in writing.”
WHEN Miss Lupowitz came back from Doctor Wiles’s office, I knew that she had been told. Her eyes were very bright and her mouth pinched. “May I have please the autopsies that you have not done?”
I handed them to her and went on with my grosses.
While I typed, I was aware every so often of noises from Miss Lupowitz like “Och!” and “What, what?” And I could hear the click of her foot again and again on the “repeat” pedal of her Dictaphone. “Doctor Duval,” she said at one point, “could it be ‘the bowel spaces are gaping’? You are talking about the kidneys.” “ ‘Bowman’s spaces,’” he called back. Later, “I am sorry to bother you again, Doctor Duval. I am afraid you will have to come and listen to this one. It sounds like ‘apple water.’ I can’t make it out at all.”
He came over in his baggy surgical suit and put the earphones on. “The ‘ampulla of Vater,’ ” he said. “‘The mehn pan-creatic duct em-teez into the am-pulla of Vater jointly weeth the choledocus.’ ”
“Thank you very much, sir. I am sorry to have to keep bothering you. I was so familiar with the vocabulary of the surgical reports. This I have to learn all over again. And they have never fixed my machine.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “Believe me, I have never lived through such disorganization. I am getting the migraine — I can feel it coming over my right eye.”
The truth was, I was having just as much trouble with the surgical reports as Miss Lupowitz was with the autopsies. Every third word was a new one to me, and I had to play it over many times. But I did not want to ask the doctors to help me because she was doing that.
When the telephone rang and Marsha was not in her office to pick it up, Miss Lupowitz would answer it. Snatches of her replies occasionally reached me: “You’d better ask Doctor Wiles.
I don’t know how they are planning to handle that, sir. I can only tell you the way we used to do it. and of course that may all be changed now . . .” “Sir, I would not know anything about that now.
I believe Doctor Wiles’s secretary is handling that from now on.”
I guess this was an example of what Doctor Wiles meant by her “rigidity.” Really, she was very foreign-looking, too. She had heavy hips, and she wore men’s sweaters and black oxfords like mine, although she didn’t have to. I honestly disliked her now.
I became all the more desirous of proving that I couldl do the grosses faster than she could after twenty years. Marsha would not find me missing her deadlines. By eleven thirty I was ready for another belt of grosses. “Doctor Chang,” I called. “I can do your grosses if you have them dictated.”
He had just come out of the lab and was pulling off his rubber gloves. “A twenty-one-year-old girl,” he said, to no one in particular. “Married, and four months pregnant, and this is definitely carcinoma.”
I waited, my fingers arched over the keys. He went on and on, that the husband was hysterical and that the girl lay in a kind of happy dream state. “They’ll have to take that baby from her. Boyoboy, I feel like crying myself.”
He paused, whereupon I said eagerly: “Doctor Chang, do you have any grosses for me to type?”
“Such a pretty girl, too. What was that, Miss Murphy?”
I had to ask him a third time. I was very annoyed; it was now eleven forty.
MARSHA seemed rather strange at lunch. Her gray eyes stared past my shoulder. I missed her talking to me about the progress we were making and about who was still not pulling his weight.
At the other lab table were two girls from chemistry. “Are those the girls you and Doctor Wiles are watching?” I asked.
“Two of the ones, yes. Maybe I’m not very sociable,” she remarked, spreading out our food, “but I just don’t enjoy sitting with them. All they talk about is their husbands and their children. It’s very boring.” She had a beautiful sweater around her shoulders. The flesh on her arm was a lovely tan. She seemed so fresh and clean-looking; almost everyone else down here was either Puerto Rican or Negro. “I come from a big family myself,” she added, “so I’ve heard my fill.”
“Oh, do you?”
“Yes — seven children.”
It turned out that she came from Roxbury, a neighborhood as bad as mine. I was shocked. It did not fit. “You don’t still live there, do you?”
“Oh, no. I have an apartment by myself on Beacon Hill.”
“How nice!” I was so glad she was out of Roxbury.
“Yes, it is nice. I wake up in the morning, with the sun streaming in my window, and I say to myself, ‘Marsha, my girl, this is the life. Be glad you’re footloose and fancy-free. Would you really want a brood of screaming brats at your heels;”
“That’s such a beautiful sweater.”
“Why, thank you. I used to wear a uniform when we were at Camden, but Doctor Wiles hates women to wear uniforms. I couldn’t agree more.” She sighed and fell silent.
I had thought she would be in a good mood. Tomorrow began the Fourth of July weekend, and it meant that we would be off for three days. I had been imagining her as part of a “gay crowd": boys and a convertible, transistors and lying in the sand in a dotted bikini, kicking up perfect tan legs. But seeing her gloom, I began to worry that she thought me not fast enough on the grosses. We were still getting them out a day late to the surgeons. “Maybe I could come in on Monday,” I suggested, “and do the surgical reports that are left over.”
Her eyes focused on me slowly. “What?”
I repeated my offer.
“Don’t be silly. Monday’s a holiday.”
“I know, but I wouldn’t mind. I have nothing else to do.”
“Well, thanks, but they won’t be doing any operations except emergencies on Monday. I think Doctor Chang will be on, but no one else.” She sighed. “I had thought Doctor Wiles would ask for the Fourth so that we could get a number of things straightened out, but he won’t be coming in. I can’t say that I blame him. He has five acres and a perfectly delightful house. Boston will be hot as Hades this weekend.”
“You’ve been to his house!”
“Don’t shriek. Of course I’ve been to his house.” She frowned suddenly. “I’m thirsty and fat around the middle. Two of the seventeen symptoms I have that I’m about to get my period.” She grimaced. “The ‘curse.’ I’ll never understand why women dread the menopause. I can’t wait.” She lapsed into silence again. When she looked up, her eyes were much brighter: “What has Miss Lupowitz been doing all morning?”
“An autopsy, I guess.”
“I guess so.” Something was in the wind. I felt excited, the way you do at school when the principal has sent for someone — not you. “Is there something wrong?”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “Yes, I believe there is.” She broke off, seized at that point by a cramp.
THE long weekend of the Fourth seemed interminable. On Monday, the holiday, Mommy went to the beach with her sister. I didn’t go because I didn’t want to get sand in my brace. I stayed home by the fan, fiddling with the TV dial. It was quiet and depressing. None of my programs were on. I thought about how I would try to beat the speed record I had set last week. And then I thought about Miss Lupowitz and how Marsha had seemed especially displeased with her. That cheered me up: something was brewing, I was sure.
My suspicions were confirmed on Tuesday morning. Every so often Marsha would come in, stand in our doorway, and survey Miss Lupowitz and me. Sometimes she would say, “How’s it coming, ladies?” She frightened me. She wore her horn-rimmed glasses, and her hair was drawn back so tightly that her cheekbones and nose were like three sharp points. I would offer to tell her about my progress or hand her a sheaf of finished reports, but she would only nod at me and pass on to Miss Lupowitz’s desk. There she would stand going through papers on the woman’s desk. I could see Miss Lupowitz’s eyes dart sideways while she tried to keep on typing. At last she pulled the Dictaphone apparatus from her ears and said, “Miss Polanski, what is it you are looking for? If you would tell me, I could find it for you.”
“No, no, go on with what you’re doing.”
“It’s just that you are getting everything out of order.”
“Oh, am I? That’s too bad, Ma’am. I’m looking for finished autopsies, and I seem to find only four.”
“I’m on my fifth one now—
“But so far you’ve completed only four since we started you on them. Is that right?”
“Miss Polanski, I am doing my best. You and Doctor Wiles knew I would have to become familiar with this vocabulary all over again. It’s you who are after me all the time for the autopsies; the doctors aren’t asking for them.”
At this Marsha turned on her heel and walked out.
Two nurses who had been in the office the whole time watched her go. One was the loud nurse. “She’s in a great mood today,” she said. “I guess he went home to his wife last night.”
“What future does that kid have?” said the other one.
“No future, none at all.”
“He’ll have a coronary. Look at the difference in their ages.”
“Yeah, and don’t forget, he has to do two.”
“Pat, you think of everything.”
I felt like bursting into tears. Oh, please stop talking. I can’t hear my dictabelt.
Marsha did not come in anymore that morning. I grew hungry and began waiting for her buzz-buzz, meaning wash your hands, sign us out, and meet me by the service elevator to go down to lunch. But the signal never came. At last, screwing up my courage, I called her on the interoffice phone.
I tried to sound funny about it: “I’m hon-greee.” It was a failure: she did not understand me. “I thought — um, whu-well, do you want to go down to lunch yet?”
“Why don’t you go ahead,” she said. “I want to speak to Doctor Wiles about something. I’m sorry — I should have let you know. Can you manage?”
“Sure, I guess so.”
I would have been very sad and uneasy about going down without her, except that in the hall I passed a man with a tray of sandwiches and coffee, and he asked me to direct him to Doctor Wiles’s office. That changed everything: Marsha and Doctor Wiles were dining together in his office. What a wonderful idea! The hardworking doctor and his secretary grabbing a fast bite together: it was better than anything I had seen on Doctor Kildare. I felt so proud of them for thinking of it.
I brought my lunch to the table where the other lab workers sat. After a moment they went on talking among themselves, for which I was thankful. I kept my eyes on my lunch.
Finally one of them asked me, “How’s ‘little one’?”
“I don’t understand,” I replied.
“She’s fine. I — I think she’s eating sandwiches with Doctor Wiles.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Isn’t that nice, Barbara? She’s smart. This ravioli is murder on your figure” —she knocked her girlfriend’s elbow and smirked — “for them that has to eat it.”
I didn’t understand them and did not care to try. I hurried with my lunch, bussed my dishes, and rode up with a carful of nurses. I can walk very quietly if I swing my leg out in a wide arc and step down on it very slowly. I got to the door of Doctor Wiles’s office without making a sound. There on the chair outside the door was the tray, the food gone. There were two sandwich plates, two coffee cups, and on one of the cups was a smear of lipstick. Smiling, I took a napkin for a souvenir, and then swung and stepped slowly, swung and stepped slowly, back to my desk.
I found Miss Lupowitz blotting her face with a wet paper towel. “I am not feeling so good,” she explained. I did not wonder that she was nervous, having been so rude to Marsha. I stacked the reports that I had finished that morning in a neat pile (they rose much higher than Miss Lupowitz’s completed work, I was sure) and went on to the next one. It would not be good, I felt, for me to be seen speaking to her.
Toward the end of the afternoon Miss Lupowitz was summoned by buzzer to go into Doctor Wiles’s office.
“Well, here it is,” she said to Doctor Hendrix. “A dressing down.” She pronounced it “drrressink.”
“Don’t take it to heart, Ruth,” he said. “In a year those two won’t be here.”
When she came back she began at once to dispose of things in her drawers and lockers. Doctor Chang and Doctor Hendrix were watching her. Finally Chang came over to her desk and asked her what had happened. She murmured something. “Really?" he said. “I don’t believe it.” She simply stared back at him with wet eyes. “Boyoboy, they’re crazy,” he said, shaking his head and walking away.
Of course I was dying to know what had been said in Doctor Wiles’s office, but I did not let on. It was exciting, having all this discord eddying around you but not involving you — the typing went much faster.
WHEN I arrived at work the next morning there was already a belt of grosses on my desk, and on the table with the surgical book there were several specimens in jars or in green cloth waiting to be entered. “Would you do it,” Doctor Hendrix asked me, “since Ruth’s not here?”
I didn’t have time to wonder where she was. “Keep calm, keep calm, you fool,” I told myself as I wrote in the surgical book. “If you don’t, you’ll make an error.” But I kept mislaying my pencil, and then every time I got myself seated at the typewriter, thinking that perhaps I could get another report done, in would come a nurse: “Gallbladder. Sign, please.” And I would get up again.
“I told Marsha she could come in a little late this morning,” said Doctor Wiles to Hendrix and me when he signed in. “She was here until ten thirty last night filing slides for me.” He said nothing about Miss Lupowitz.
It was almost noon hour before Marsha came rushing in. Her long blond hair hung down to her shoulders, and she had on a violet dress I had never seen before. “Oh, you look so beautiful!” I told her.
“Why, thank you, Miss Jane,” she said, signing in. She looked like her old happy self again. “How is it coming? Have you finished the grosses?”
“No, but I came in at eight thirty so I could get a head start, and I’ve been entering all the specimens, too. Is it OK? Is it all right that I haven’t finished all of them yet?”
She gave me a smile. “It’s all right.”
A half hour later, when I still had a number of reports to do, she reappeared. “Turn off that machine!” she said gaily. “I’m hungry.”
“Lunch? Can I eat after you do today? Then I can have these reports for Doctor Chang when he comes back from his lunch.”
“Oh, the heck with him.” She stamped her foot playfully. “Come now. I don’t want to eat alone.”
Marsha and l were midway through our lunch when she said to me, “Miss Lupowitz is leaving, you know.”
“What!” I said.
“It was coming for a long time. We kept giving her more work, and she just wasn’t getting it done. And she couldn’t adjust to the Dictaphone.”
“But it was broken —”
“Yes, that was her excuse. She had lots of them.” She sighed. Her voice was very soft. “Doctor Wiles was going to think it over a little longer — what to do about her. But yesterday I told him some of the things she has done and about how uncooperative she’s been with me, and he just realized it would never work. I would get worn out fighting her stubbornness, and he wouldn’t want that. He’s so kind, it breaks his heart to have to fire somebody. I’m the same way — I hated telling him about her, but it was my duty, and he was glad I did.” Her voice tightened. “I gather the old fossil was a little surprised to get the ax, but that’s her problem. She had no right—no right! — to think she was indispensable. Why, the agencies are crawling with people who can’t be anything but typists.”
I was staring at her. The food I had eaten had knotted in my stomach. I didn’t know why I should feel so apprehensive. They were Only People,
and Only People got to fire nonpeople. As long as they were pleased with my work, they would keep me. But I felt frightened nonetheless.
“She wasn’t fired, you know,” Marsha said. “Doctor Wiles simply asked her to resign. He told her that he was afraid if she stayed, they’d only lock horns, and he didn’t want that to happen because she was such a nice lady and he was fond of her. By the way,” she added, “we’re very pleased with the way you’re working out.”
At that I began to feel better, and the piece of bread that was stuck slid the rest of the way down my esophageal tract.
When we got upstairs, Marsha asked me to sign her back in. I guess that she did not want to encounter Miss Lupowitz, who had come in while we were eating. I found her rolling up her calendar with the picture of Bucharest on it. She put it in a large box of other papers, little jars of medicine, and wax flowers. Then she came over to me. My shoulders tensed: Now what?
“Good-bye, Miss Murphy. I am sorry that I had so little time to talk to you.” She paused, adjusting the box under her arm. “I must think about where I shall go now. I’ve — I’ve always worked close to doctors, you see. My father was one, in Rumania”—she laughed—“before the Germans decided suddenly he doesn’t know anything about medicine anymore. I don’t know what I’ll do now. I’ve sometimes thought if I wouldn’t be working in this hospital, I would die. I suppose that’s a foolish idea, isn’t it?”
I looked up at her, my fingers remaining poised over the keys. She seemed to be waiting for me to reply. I could think of nothing to say but “Well, good-bye.”
When she had gone, I took her NOBLOT Thinrite. I had wanted it for weeks, and I needed it now. The nurses were coming in constantly with specimens, and it was I, now, who had to enter die patients’ names in the surgical book.
The next day I acquired something bigger. Marsha said, “Why don’t you sit at the IBM now? There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have it. It must be tiring typing on a manual all day.”
How kind she was to me! I felt shy but happy. “Yes, but what if she comes back or something?”
Marsha tweaked my hair. “Miss Lupowitz isn’t coming back,” she said, smiling.
Well, I thought, settling myself in, Miss Lupowitz certainly disappeared fast. But that’s Life. You have to adjust to change or go under.
“They fired that Rumanian woman,” I told Mommy that night. I had saved the news until after supper. “I have her IBM now, and my shoulders don’t hurt a bit. They had to let her go. She just wasn’t meeting the deadlines.”